Amsterdam beyond the guidebook

Aundrea Kinney photos/Review Because Amsterdam is a flat city, the most popular mode of transportation is biking. Pedal bikes, motorized bikes and motorized scooters all travel in the bike lane, and pedestrians need to be careful not to get clipped when stepping off the sidewalk.

Near the Anne Frank house, we discovered the Tulip Museum — a small, local museum detailing the history of the tulip, its journey from Turkey to the Netherlands, its rise and fall in value during the Tulipmania of the 1600s and modern day production. Materials within the museum suggested that it may have been the subdued colors of the city that attracted residents to the colorful tulip.

For lunch one day I tried herring from a food truck. It tasted nothing like the fishy pickled product I was used to. Instead it was mild, had a silky texture and melted like butter in my mouth. Onions and pickles were served on the side.

Abandoning a schedule allowed us to have encounters we could not have planned for, like watching and listening to the street performers in Rembrandtplein — Rembrandt Square — named after the painter who lived nearby.

Amsterdam is almost a different city at night. Buildings throughout the city were lit up with colorful lights as music from night clubs filtered out into the street.

The Bloemenmarket, a flower market, was full of tulip bulbs and other bulbs for sale in addition to cut flowers. Although the Bloemenmarket is one of several markets in the city, it was especially interesting because the greenhouses that make up the shops are all built to float on a canal, rather than being set up on a street.

I first learned of the Netherlands during a first-grade career day presentation. The grandmother of one of my classmates was a flight attendant, and as we sat at our desks, she talked us through what it is like to fly in an airplane. 

“You need to wear a seatbelt on the airplane, just like in a car,” she said, and we fastened imaginary belts. Most of us had probably never been on a real airplane before.

The class imagined the takeoff and the flight attendant described how we could see out our windows that the houses were appearing smaller as we gained altitude. The houses looked like dollhouses and the trees like broccoli. We flew higher and higher until all we saw were clouds.

She made her way down the aisles distributing pretzels and sodas like the attendant would on a real flight, and when she was finished she told us about our destination.

She described the fields of colorful tulips that together resemble a bright patchwork quilt spread across the landscape beneath our airplane window. She described windmills on the horizon and ships on the coast. She showed us photos and postcards, gave us samples of cheese, and passed around a pair of wooden clogs.

“This is the Netherlands,” she said.

When I jetted off to Amsterdam immediately following my Oct. 13 wedding, I knew little more about the area than what I had learned as a first grader. Although it’s usually not my style to travel unprepared, planning for the wedding itself was more time consuming than I had anticipated.

When I stepped off the plane, I was armed only with a Dutch phrasebook, a few outdated guidebooks and a generalized understanding of possible points of interest: the Van Gogh Museum, the original Heineken factory and, of course, the infamous Red Light District.

I quickly discovered that Amsterdam is a perfect city to visit without a plan. Although the national language is Dutch, almost all of the locals I encountered spoke English — sometimes in addition to German and French as well.


Bikes everywhere

When my new wife and I first saw the city, what immediately surprised us was the number of bikes. I have taken numerous bike excursions in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and I know a few people who bike to work in Minnesota’s warmer months, but before Amsterdam I had never seen so many bikes at one time before — even in bike shops. 

Bikes lined every canal and filled every space on bike racks. They were locked to every fence and almost every tree in sight. At Amsterdam Centraal station, the major transportation hub in the city, there is a multi-story parking garage dedicated to bikes, and when we passed by, it was generally overflowing.

Professionals could be seen biking to work in suits and skirts. Children could be seen biking to school with siblings or to a sweet shop with a group of friends. Parents would strap a little one into a seat on the back of the bike or seat more than one child in a wagon-like cart attached low in the front of their bike.

Bike lanes were well-established throughout the city and locals measured distances all over the country in the time it takes to bike there. 


Attractions aplenty 

Although my wife and I saw bikes everywhere, we mostly stuck with other forms of transportation because it was more cost effective than renting a bike. Over the course of our trip we tried busses, trams and ferries to visit popular tourist spots like the National Holocaust Museum, the A’DAM Lookout tower and the Anne Frank House. 

We also utilized public transportation to access central areas in each of the city’s seven main districts, which we used as starting points as we walked around checking out shops, cafés and pubs at random.

There is something in Amsterdam for everyone, but as a gardener and nature lover I was drawn to the city’s botanical sites such as the Tulip Museum, the Bloemenmarket, which is a flower market, and Hortus Botanicus, a botanical garden.

Although my wife and I received multiple recommendations for romantic canal tours, we found a leisurely stroll through the botanical gardens more enjoyable than the crowded canal boats. According to the pamphlet handed to us on arrival, Hortus Botanicus is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world and was originally founded in 1638 as a medicinal herb garden.

While visiting, we saw rhubarb taller than ourselves, overgrown agave plants, numerous flowers and a 35-year-old redwood. The most rare plant we saw was the Wollemi pine, which was only seen by humans as fossils until 1994 when a small grove of the trees was found in Australia. 

We also enjoyed a light lunch at the on-site cafe before moving on to our next adventure. In general, when we were hungry we stopped wherever we were and ate whatever seemed interesting. 


Quest for Dutch food

When my wife and I looked down the street for restaurants we saw British pubs, Argentinian steak houses and a floating Chinese restaurant. Although we wanted to try traditional Dutch cuisine, the restaurants dedicated to that fare seemed to elude us. 

I suspect this is because Amsterdam at its heart is a port city built off fishing and trade, which helps foster businesses selling unique and foreign wares. It reminded me of New York City, the way mixed cultures have become part of the city’s identity. Afterall, New York City began as the fur trading post, New Amsterdam.

We did eventually find some traditional Dutch food when we looked a little closer at food trucks. We tried herring for lunch one day, which tasted more smooth and mild than the pickled herring I am used to. 

We also tried oliebollen, which are similar to large doughnut holes except the dough used is more moist and elastic than the crumbly cake dough I expected, and fresh stroopwafels, which are like cookies with two wafer-thin layers of waffle sandwiching a layer of caramel.

Although my wife and I pursued several of the typical tourist attractions, we did not make it a priority. We tried to slow down and enjoy the simple things. There was so much to see and do beyond what can be found in guidebooks.

Most mornings began with freshly brewed coffee at a local koffie house. Most evenings wrapped up with a beer on a patio and some people watching.

With the trip over, I find myself grateful for the opportunity to just take in the sights, sounds and flavors of such a historic, yet still thriving city. There was not any one tour or attraction that stands out as a must-see. What is special to me was the feeling I had just standing in the city, being a part of it.

Now, I’m only afraid I will blink and find myself back in my first grade classroom, having imagined the whole experience.


Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or


Rate this article: 
Average: 4.3 (6 votes)
Comment Here